…The highs and lows of 2022
TO suggest, at the beginning of the year, that Zimbabwe’s cricket team would be the biggest success story of 2022?
Not only the most hardened cynic would have ridiculed such prediction!
You could hardly blame the pessimism.
The year had started on a very bad note, with the country’s only world-class cricketer of the past decade or so – Brendan Taylor – being banned from international cricket for failing to report a 2019 spot-fixing approach from an Indian businessman.
A bad omen, it looked like – at the beginning of a brand new year – for a country whose obituary in this sport was nearly complete.
When rank outsiders Namibia visited and left with a 3-2 T20I win in May, the eulogy was ready to go public.
Then it was Afghanistan, who not so long ago needed our Under-19 side for some competition.
They came and whitewashed the Chevrons 3-0 in both white-ball formats.
What needed to be done, therefore, to save the integrity of a nation that used to be well respected in this sport?
At the rate things were going, even a change of coaches, even if it means replacing the no-hoper Lalchand Rajput, did not seem like the magic wand in the bag.
But, as it turned out, it was.
As Afghanistan romped to a series whitewash in the last match, news filtered in that legendary ex-Zimbabwe batter Dave Houghton has been appointed to take over from the Indian Rajput.
Suddenly, the T20 World Cup dream, which was certainly never going to come true under Rajput, was alive.
The Houghton impact was immediate as Zimbabwe won all five games of the qualification tournament in Bulawayo in July, including the final against Netherlands, to qualify for the World Cup in Australia in October and November.
With Brendan Taylor retiring amidst the wreckage of his bookmaker scandal, and subsequent three-and-a-half-year ban by the ICC in January, Sikandar Raza filled in effortlessly as the new kingpin of the Zimbabwe side.
The Pakistan-born batting all-rounder took his majestic form beyond the qualifiers, inspiring Zimbabwe to a 2-1 series wins in both short versions against touring Bangladesh.
India came in August and clean-sweeped the ODI series 3-0, although Zimbabwe’s gusty resistance and performance was another sign of the Chevrons showing their real potential under Houghton.
Weeks later, the Zimbabweans were in Australia, losing the ODI contest 2-1, but recording the African side’s historic first win on Australian soil, in the final match.
By the time of the T20 World Cup, the team’s tails were up, and the fans’ hopes high – something unimaginable only four month earlier when all the unwanted records were tumbling as Zimbabwean cricket hit new lows.
The Super 12 stage of the World Cup was the target, which was achieved with wins over Ireland and Scotland as well as defeat to West Indies, which never should have.
A stunning last-over win over Pakistan was the Super 12 highlight for Zimbabwe, who at one stage had the very realistic goal of the World Cup semi-finals.
A fairly satisfactory year, made better by Raza’s heroics in becoming the first Zimbabwe international to win the ICC Player of the Month award.
For that award in August, Raza hit two splendid unbeaten centuries (135 not out and 117 not out) during the 2-1 series victory over Bangladesh, on both occasions securing victory for Zimbabwe when chasing big targets.
He then smashed another ton against the Indians, although he ended up on the losing side, wrapping his accolade on all-round form by taking seven wickets in the month in the two versions.
What a relief it was that one of the country’s flagship teams was able to compete at that level, after the football team failed to kick a ball in the year due to an international suspension by world governing body Fifa.
Zimbabwe was in March slapped with an indefinite ban by Fifa for government interference after the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) fired the national football federation late last year.
The SRC – which charged the Zifa officials with corruption and sexual harassment of female match officials – is not moved an inch by the ban.
In the meanwhile, the adamant Sports Commission, which is a government-appointed regulatory body, says it will pour all efforts into “reforming” Zimbabwean football during the suspension.
How the SRC intends to do that, in the absence of Fifa funds which are frozen whilst under suspension, remains a source of mystery for now given the Zimbabwean government’s shut-wallet attitude towards sport.
To lift Zimbabwe’s ban, Fifa has demanded the reinstatement of the sacked Zifa board led by Felton Kamambo, an order that has been met with dogged resistance by the SRC.
A recently publicised forensic audit has found the fired Zifa officials to have been involved in financial fraud, but weeks later, nothing has been heard from the SRC, which said it would push for criminal prosecution.
In the meanwhile, Fifa continues to recognise the Kamambo leadership, despite an interim Zifa board having long been put in place.
At this point, Zimbabwean football is well and truly in limbo regarding the future. The SRC, meanwhile, believes it has it all figured out.
The jury is out whether they do or not.
With the footballers prevented from playing for their country due to boardroom politics, and the cricketers surprising us all with their quick turnaround, there was also one team we pinned our hopes to provide the headlines this year – for the right reasons of course.
For four years, rugby World Cup qualification was uppermost on Zimbabwean minds.
The Sables coach, Brendan Dawson, had declared at an event last year that his team would not only “qualify, but would be threatening other teams.”
The Zimbabwe Rugby Union (ZRU) wanted it so bad that nearly all other teams, and activities, took a back seat as the Sables topped the priority list.
Participation in South Africa’s SuperSport Challenge and Currie Cup seemed to put the Sables in good stead.
But as the run-down started for the African qualification tournament for the World Cup – bizarrely hosted by France – reality began to dawn that the ZRU and the coaches had led us up the garden path.
News quickly spread how the ZRU had clashed with some top-class players who had pledged to play, but were not offered half what the union had pledged.
The Sables are one hell of a team, a good bunch of players who love what they do and cherish every moment they run onto the park to represent their country. But it was clear Zimbabwe did not have the right mix we had been promised to finally knock mighty Namibia off their perch for a place in the World Cup.
Zimbabwe huffed and puffed to beat Ivory Coast in a quarter-final tie of the qualifiers, but were well beaten by the Namibians in the semi-finals, as the Welwitschias went on the defeat Kenya in the final to clinch their seventh consecutive World Cup berth.
In the shorter version, which is easier to qualify, Zimbabwe played in the Rugby World Cup Sevens and came a dismal second from bottom, only one place above minnows Jamaica.
A bad year, overall, for ZimRugby on the field and at the head office.
The future, though, is promising. The Zimbabwe Under-20 side proved that by winning the youth Africa Cup in Kenya in April, under the stewardship of the head coach, former Sables star back Shaun De Souza.
If there is however a team that Zimbabwean sports fans have been accustomed to celebrating, it is the netball side.
In August in a qualification competition in South Africa, the Gems secured their second straight World Cup appearance following their maiden tournament in Liverpool, England, in 2019.
The feat came in the same year that their captain, Felisitus Kwangwa, won two awards at UK top-flight club Surrey Storm – the Coaches’ Players of the Year and the Fans’ Player of the Season.
Staying with the ladies, another cause for cheer was the boxer Kudakwashe Chiwandire, appropriately nicknamed “Take Money”. The fighter from Harare in March defended her World Boxing Council bantamweight interim title after defeating Mexican challenger Zulina Munoz in the Zimbabwean capital in October.
A feat worth mentioning, in an otherwise quiet year for sport in the country.